History of the Separation of Church and State in America

By image - March 27, 2004

The topic of Separation of Church and State has obviously become a hot one in America with both the Supreme Court case regarding the inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and President George Bush's promotion of his "faith based initiative" along with his overtly religious tone. It's not just George Bush though, several other public officials have voiced either support for more inclusion of religion in government affairs, or have spoken in opposition to restoring the tradition of secularism to the State arena.

Throughout all this it has been obvious that this is a topic that many of us citizens feel strongly about, and it's obvious, therefore, that this is a topic which merits some real national debate. Before a debate can take place though, all those involved have to be educated and knowledgeable about the topic being debated, and unfortunately neither our public officials nor the media at large are presenting an honest and factual case to the public about the facts that are in question.

Again and again we hear the claim that "America is a Christian nation founded on Christianity." When the question as to whether "under God" should be included in the Pledge of Allegiance is raised, claims are made even by the highest level officials, such as judges, Senators and the President, that the proof that "under God" belongs in the Pledge is plain to see since "In God We Trust" is on our money, and we have "God" referenced in federal oaths, and other things of this nature.

At first glance this seems very reasonable, however, as is often the case, first glances can be misleading.

When the United States of America was founded, it represented the most progressive political movement in Western Civilization since the days of the Greek democracies over 2,000 years ago. The movement for revolution, as most of us should know, was sparked by Thomas Paine, who roused colonists' desire for freedom with his best selling book Common Sense and then participated in the Revolution both as an enlisted man and by writing the inspirational series Crisis. Paine was the first to suggest the unification of the separate states, and the first to use to term United States of America. Paine turned over all the money he received from the sale of his works to the Continental Army to support the cause of the Revolution. After the American Revolution was over Paine went on to France where he then participated in the French Revolution in his lifelong effort to fight for freedom from tyranny. Perhaps more than any other single man, Thomas Paine is responsible for the formation of the United States, for as fellow revolutionary and American president John Adams stated: "Without the pen of Paine the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain."

Thomas Paine

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While in France Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man and a book called The Age of Reason, which he sent back to America to have published. In the introduction to The Age of Reason Paine stated:

Fellow Citizens of the United States of America, I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion.

Taken from a 1889 printing of The Age of Reason

Paine went on to give his opinion of religion:

"I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."

This was just the beginning. After stating that he did believe in God, but that he felt all religions were corrupt, he went on to offer what was to that date one of the fullest criticisms of the Bible, and he denounced the story of Jesus as a product of Roman pagan mythology, stating that Jesus was a good man with a good philosophy, but that all the talk of the supernatural in the Bible was obviously nothing more than mythology.

Other select quotes from The Age of Reason:

"Deism, then, teaches us, without the possibility of being deceived, all that is necessary or proper to be known. The creation is the Bible of the deist. He there reads, in the handwriting of the Creator himself, the certainty of his existence and the immutability of his power, and all other Bibles and Testaments are to him forgeries."

"The opinions I have advanced… are the effect of the most clear and long-established conviction that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world, that the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty; that the only true religion is Deism, by which I then meant, and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues-and that it was upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter."

"Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity."

"We can know God only through his works. We cannot have a conception of any one attribute but by following some principle that leads to it. We have only a confused idea of his power, if we have not the means of comprehending something of its immensity. We can have no idea of his wisdom, but by knowing the order and manner in which it acts. The principles of science lead to this knowledge; for the Creator of man is the Creator of science; and it is through that medium that man can see God, as it were, face to face."

Prior to the publication of The Age of Reason, Vermont patriot and revolutionary republican Ethan Allen wrote a book titled Reason: The Only Oracle Of Man. In the Preface to the book he stated:

"In the circle of my acquaintance, (which has not been small,) I have generally been denominated a deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism make me one; and as to being a deist, I know not, strictly speaking, whether I am one or not, for I have never read their writings; mine will therefore determine the matter; for I have not in the least disguised my sentiments, but have written freely without any conscious knowledge of prejudice for, or against any man, sectary or party whatever; but wish that good sense, truth and virtue may be promoted and flourish in the world, to the detection of delusion, superstition, and false religion; and therefore my errors in the succeeding treatise, which may be rationally pointed out, will be readily rescinded.

By the public's most obedient and humble servant.


The first chapter starts with the following passage:

"The desire of knowledge has engaged the attention of the wise and curious among mankind in all ages which has been productive of extending the arts and sciences far and wide in the several quarters of the globe, and excited the contemplative to explore nature's laws in a gradual series of improvement, until philosophy, astronomy, geography, and history, with many other branches of science, have arrived to a great degree of perfection."

The book is concluded with this closing statement:

"An unjust composition never fails to contain error and falsehood. Therefore an unjust connection of ideas is not derived from nature, but from the imperfect composition of man. Misconnection of ideas is the same as misjudging, and has no positive existence, being merely a creature of the imagination; but nature and truth are real and uniform; and the rational mind by reasoning, discerns the uniformity, and is thereby enabled to make a just composition of ideas, which will stand the test of truth. But the fantastical illuminations of the credulous and superstitious part of mankind, proceed from weakness, and as far as they take place in the world subvert the religion of REASON, NATURE and TRUTH."

Technically though, neither Thomas Paine, despite the fact that without him America as we know it would likely not exist, nor Ethan Allen were founders of the United States in that they were neither signers of the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution.

That leads us to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Preamble to the Constitution

The founding of the United States of America took place in 1787 with the signing of the Constitution, which is a purely secular document. In relation to religion the Constitution states:

Article VI: Clause 3: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

In relation to taking the Oath of Office the Constitution simply states:

Article II Section I: Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The Bill Of Rights was quickly amended to the Constitution in order to protect the rights of citizens because the original Constitution primarily just defined the powers of government. The third Article of the Bill of Rights (which became the first amendment) states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. 

Bill of Rights including the first Amendment to the Constitution

There is often debate about what exactly the First Amendment means, however, in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson made clear that the purpose of the First Amendment was to establish a "wall of separation" between Church and State in order to protect individuals' right of conscience:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Divine references are found in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 however, which is the document that set the colonies on the road to the formation of our country.

Introduction of the Declaration of Independence

There are four references to a deity found in the Declaration of Independence, which was primarily co-authored by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, both friends of Thomas Paine. Those phrases are: "Nature's God," "Creator," "Supreme Judge," and "Divine Providence." Specifically, the Declaration starts out:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The Declaration of Independence clearly asserts earthly authority,  the words "Laws of Nature" are even capitalized. In addition to reading the usage of the word God in context, it is also important to understand the Declaration in its own historical context. Furthermore, Benjamin Franklin was a self-declared Deist and it was he who made the final edits to the document.

The Declaration of Independence would have been clearly recognizable as deistic at the time it was written. The Declaration did not, for example, state: "In the name of The Lord God Jesus Christ," as would have been a much more traditional reference to the Christian God in a manner that was used by Europeans at the time. The Declaration was written during the height of the Enlightenment when Deism was popular and widely known. Deistic language was easy to recognize by people of the time because Deists avoided all of the traditional references to the Christian God. When Deists referred to "God" they used terms like "Supreme Being", "Almighty Judge", "Creator", "God of Nature", "Nature's God", etc. On the other hand Christians typically used terms like "the Lord", "Jesus Christ", "God", "Savior", etc.

The reference to "Laws of Nature" is an even more direct reference to Deism, because the deistic belief was that some supreme being created the universe and the laws of nature and the rest of what progressed from that point on followed the laws of nature. Most Deists did not believe in divine intervention or supernatural occurrences, and they definitely did not believe that Jesus was the son of God. Mention of the Laws of Nature would have been an extremely obvious reference to Deism in 1776.

In addition to all of this, there was a reference to Christianity in Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence, however the reference was not positive. In Jefferson's rough draft he wrote:

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium [disgrace] of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

So, claims that references to a deity in the Declaration of Independence prove that America was founded on Christianity are dubious at best. The Declaration is clearly deistic when read in its own historical context and it was co-authored by America's two most strongly deistic founders. What has to be recognized is that the Declaration of Independence, including the manner in which it referred to God, was a very progressive document; in fact, it was "revolutionary."

What about the founders then?

The majority of the 100 plus founders were Christians, as were virtually all Europeans at that time. Of the Christian founders, most were very progressive in their views and were among the staunchest proponents of separation of Church and State. Some founders, including many of the most prominent, are known to have been Deists as well. Thomas Paine is of course the best example of an American Deist, but Benjamin Franklin also declared himself a Deist and Thomas Jefferson also wrote his own version of the Bible in which he took out all of the supernatural events of the New Testament. Benjamin Franklin is the only founder to have signed all three of the founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, The Treaty of Paris, and The Constitution. While Jefferson declared himself a "true Christian" (to Jefferson most priests and evangelicals were not "true Christians"), he also later declared himself an Epicurean. Epicures was a Greek materialist philosopher. 

In a letter to William Short Jefferson proclaimed that, "[t]he immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc., [were all] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him."

He followed  up that letter with another stating that, "[i]t is not to be understood that I am with him (Jesus Christ) in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it..."

It is widely known, though, that George Washington took his Inaugural Oath using a Bible and it has long been believed that he ad-libbed the words "so help me God" to the end of the Constitutionally prescribed Oath of Office as well, however the evidence shows this not to be the case. It appears the claim that George Washington added "so help me God," to the end of his oath originated some time in the 1850s. There is a record of the inauguration and the record records Washington's word and makes no mention of "so help me God."

In addition to the Presidential Oath, the original Congressional oath also lacked "so help me God," but this phrase was added to the Congressional Oath in 1884.

For more on this see: Boston 1775: Swearing into Office "So Help Me God"

In relation to Washington's use of a Bible for the swearing in ceremony: This was not George Washington's idea, in fact no one brought a Bible to the ceremony. The state law of New York, which was where the ceremony was taking place, required that a Bible be used when taking an oath. George Washington was not prepared for this and the ceremony was held up while a search for a Bible was conducted. One was located in a nearby Freemason's Lodge, and the Mason's Bible was used in the ceremony. George Washington himself was a Freemason. The Freemasons were (and still are) a semi-secret organization, which at that time held very progressive religious views and had as part of their program an agenda of promoting religious tolerance. It was not required that members be Christian to be a Freemason, only that they believe in a supreme being. This requirement made it possible for Deists to join, or for that matter Jews and Muslims - something very progressive for the time. In fact, many Freemasons were Deists.

On the matter of separation of Church and State and religious liberties it is helpful to see exactly what the founders said on the matter in order to understand their opinion of it.

A sampling of quotes from American founders:

The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses....

Unembarrassed by attachments to noble families, hereditary lines and successions, or any considerations of royal blood, even the pious mystery of holy oil had no more influence than that other of holy water: the people universally were too enlightened to be imposed on by artifice; and their leaders, or more properly followers, were men of too much honour to attempt it. Thirteen governments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favour of the rights of mankind.
-- President John Adams: "A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America" (1787-88)

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.
- Benjamin Franklin: in letter to Richard Price, October 9, 1780

My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting [Protestant] way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist.
- Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1793

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
-- President Thomas Jefferson: in letter to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
-Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom

If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D'Alembert, D'Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than love of God.
-- President Thomas Jefferson: in letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
     We have solved ... the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

- President Thomas Jefferson: in a speech to the Virginia Baptists (1808)

In the two statements above, Thomas Jefferson clearly extends the right of religious freedom to atheists and non-believers as well, with equal respect. The above statement was his second use of the term "wall of separation between church and state."

Manufacturers, who listening to the powerful invitations of a better price for their fabrics, or their labor, of greater cheapness of provisions and raw materials, of an exemption from the chief part of the taxes burdens and restraints, which they endure in the old world, of greater personal independence and consequence, under the operation of a more equal government, and of what is far more precious than mere religious toleration--a perfect equality of religious privileges; would probably flock from Europe to the United States to pursue their own trades or professions, if they were once made sensible of the advantages they would enjoy, and were inspired with an assurance of encouragement and employment, will, with difficulty, be induced to transplant themselves, with a view to becoming cultivators of the land.
- Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton: Report on the Subject of Manufacturers December 5, 1791

Here Alexander Hamilton noted that "a perfect equality" of all religious privileges would be a quality that would draw immigrants to America, something that he wanted to promote. 

Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.
- James Madison; Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?


If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.
- James Madison; Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785

The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both;
- James Madison; Letter to Edward Everett, March 18, 1823

Nothwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Gov' & Religion neither can be duly supported: Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst.. And in a Gov' of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Gov will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together;
- President James Madison, 1822

These are by no means the only comments made on the subject of religion by these men, just a small sampling of some of their views on the matter. The last quote is of special importance in relation to another subject of American history, that being the existence of laws relating to religion among the states and the influence of devoutly religious colonists and early citizens.

It is certainly true that there were a great many highly Christian groups in early America, however it was in fact these very people that some of the founders were at odds with, as President Madison made clear in the quote above, calling those looking to retain a role of religion in government of "the old error."  He noted that there were such people in America, however these were not the people who founded America and established it as the most progressive country in the world at the time.

Furthermore, in 1797, in an attempt to establish peaceful relations with Muslims off the Northern Coast of Africa (an attempt that failed and led to the Barbary Wars), the Treaty of Tripoli was ratified by the Senate. Article 11 of the treaty states:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Treaty of Tripoli

That is as plain as the issue of the government of America being founded on Christianity can be stated. This treaty was written during the end of Washington's presidency and signed by John Adams, with the above statement included, once he became president.

The Treaty of Tripoli was later used in 1899 during the McKinley administration to establish peace with Philippine Muslims during the Spanish American War. The US Ambassador to Turkey used the eleventh article of the Treaty of Tripoli to prove to the Islamic Caliph (the Caliph is like the Muslim version of the  Pope) that the United States would respect the religion of the Muslims in the Philippines, which resulted in the Caliph's endorsement of the US occupation.

Let it not be presumed, though, that America was without any laws concerning religion. Prior to the signing of The Constitution in 1787, several states established laws which required that a person believe in God, or even be a Protestant, in order to hold certain public offices. For example in North Carolina's 1776 constitution it stated:

XXXII: That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.

Massachusetts' 1780 constitution stated:

Chapter I; Art. II: It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, or for his religious profession or sentiments, provided he doth not disturb the public peace or obstruct others in their religious worship.

Chapter II; Art. II. The governor shall be chosen annually; and no person shall be eligible to this office, unless, at the time of his election, he shall have been an inhabitant of this commonwealth for seven years next preceding; and unless he shall, at the same time, be seized, in his own right, of a freehold, within the commonwealth, of the value of one thousand pounds; and unless he shall declare himself to be of the Christian religion.

Massachusetts was traditionally a very puritanical state and was also the colony where the infamous Salem Witch Trials took place, during which 25 people were killed for suspicion of being witches; 160 people were accused altogether, many of which were jailed, ostracized, or had their property confiscated from them.


The 1777 Georgia Constitution stated:

Article VI. The representatives shall be chosen out of the residents in each county, who shall have resided at least twelve months in this State, and three months in the county where they shall be elected; except the freeholders of the counties of Glynn and Camden, who are in a state of alarm, and who shall have the liberty of choosing one member each, as specified in the articles of this Constitution, in any other county, until they have residents sufficient to qualify them for more; and they shall be of the Protestant on, and of the age of twenty-one years, and shall be possessed in their own right of two hundred and fifty acres of land, or some property to the amount of two hundred and fifty pounds.

After the passing of The Constitution of the United States of America, most of these states rewrote their constitutions to embrace the same type of secularism that was outlined in The Constitution. A handful, however, did not do so right way. Others, like Massachusetts, retained their religious regulations for a number of years, but they also eventually removed religious tests from their state constitutions. Eventually, with the passing of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War, the Bill of Rights was extended to the states in such a way that state constitutions could not contradict the federal constitution.

Religious discrimination did still take place after the initial signing of the Constitution. In fact, Jews were denied the right to vote in many states. In North Carolina, for example, Jews were not allowed to vote until 1860.

Interestingly, some states had also established laws that banned members of the clergy from political office as well.

Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, South Carolina and Tennessee all denied the ability to hold public office to members of the clergy with laws such as the following from the New York 1777 Constitution:

XXXIX. And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.

This definitely indicates the degrees to which the separation of Church and State was taken seriously, even at the state level prior to the signing of the federal Constitution.

In relation to the Pledge of Allegiance itself, when the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 it read:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This is a fact that is easy to verify and a part of relatively well-known public record. Why then is this fact not stated more often in the debate surrounding the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge? It's easy to understand that many Americans feel the way they do about the Pledge when so few know that it was originally written without the words "under God" in it.

Another common fact that is noted to support the legitimacy of references to God in the Pledge, federal oaths and mottos is the use of "In God We Trust" on our money. The first uses of "In God We Trust" on money did not appear until 1860 on privately minted coins. "In God We Trust" was later legally allowed to be printed on coins in 1865. The 1865 law allowing the use of "In God We Trust" on coins did not require it to be used however, and not all coins carried this motto.

Below is the continental dollar of the Revolutionary War, which was designed by Benjamin Franklin in 1776:

image image

The mottos on this coin are "Mind Your Business" and "We Are One."

During the Revolutionary War states issued their own currencies as well. This fifty dollar note from South Carolina makes no mention of God, and in fact has an image from Greek mythology on the back of the note, depicting Atlas. The motto in Latin on the front of the bill reads: "Let foresight guide our people." 



The back of this ninety dollar South Carolina note depicts Hercules wrestling a lion:


In 1837 Congress passed an Act that specified which mottos and phrases were allowed to be printed on currency; this included the national motto, "E Pluribus Unum" (From Many [comes] One). The motto was not required however.

1840 Half Dollar

In 1865, with the conclusion of the Civil War, a new Act was passed by Congress to allow the addition of the phrase "In God We Trust" to currency. "In God We Trust" was still not the national motto at this point and was not used on all money. It was simply allowed to be used on coins, and was used mostly on small denomination coins along with the national motto, "E Pluribus Unum."

1884 dollar coin with "In God We Trust"

States and private banks issued their own paper currency prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve. The following are examples of bills and state issued notes from the 1800s, most of which are the same on both sides:











You should notice of course the common use of both the female form (often representing Liberty, Victory or Minerva) and classical imagery. The motto "In God We Trust" was not used on paper money.

Below are examples of federal currency issued prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve.








When the Federal Reserve was created in 1913 "In God We Trust" remained absent from paper currency.






For more on the history of American currency see: Historical American Currency Exhibit

The fact is that the majority of references to God in our government came during the 1950s.

In regard to the use of "In God We Trust" on currency the Federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing states:

The use of the national motto on both U.S. coins and currency notes is required by two statutes, 31 U.S.C. 5112(d) (1) and 5114(b), respectively. The motto was not adopted for use on U.S. paper currency until 1957. It first appeared on some 1935G Series $1 Silver Certificates, but didn't appear on U.S. Federal Reserve Notes until the Series 1963 currency.

In the 1950s Congress changed the national motto from "E Pluribus Unum" to "In God We Trust" (which is how "In God We Trust" became required to be printed of federal money), "So help me God" was added to federal oaths (despite the fact that the Christian Bible clearly states not to swear by God or any other person, place, or thing when taking an oath. Matthew 5:33-37, James 5:12), and "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.


The Pledge of Allegiance is currently 112 years old. Throughout over half of its existence it has been without the phrase "under God" in it. Furthermore, our country existed for over 100 years prior to that with no pledge at all!

Now, with all of this in mind, it is interesting to reflect on comments made by public officials and commentators on the matters of religious references in government, such as this quote from CNN on March 24, 2004:

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said there "are so many references to God" in public affairs, noting "In God We Trust" was on U-S currency and coins. She added the Supreme Court opens all its public sessions with the words, "God save the United States and this honorable Court."

Yes, this is true, but as has already been shown, these references were added during the same time period, the 1950s.

On September 4, 2002 Michael Newdow was a guest on the popular FOX program Hannity & Colmes.  On this program Mr. Newdow stated that he felt that Congressional Chaplains violated the Separation of Church and State. Sean Hannity responded by saying:

"Who hired the first chaplain for congress? ...James Madison in 1789. Did you know that?"

You want to refer to some liberal activist judge..., that's fine, but I'm going to go directly to the source. The author of the Bill of Rights [James Madison] hired the first chaplain in 1789, and I gotta' tell ya' somethin', I think the author of the Bill of Rights knows more about the original intent--no offense to you and your liberal atheist activism--knows more about it than you do."

Mr. Newdow had no response, but as it turns out, Mr. Hannity was completely wrong. There was, however, no way to check the facts on the show and thus Mr. Hannity's point stood. The fact is, though, that a Congressional Chaplain was appointed while James Madison was President, but Madison opposed the action. In Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments, James Madison wrote:

Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them, and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does this not involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?

Clearly, not only was Mr. Hannity wrong, but he was very wrong, however, his statement was presented as fact on national television.

On March 20, 2004 the Seattlepi reported on the Pledge of Allegiance case stating that:

The appeals court ruling ignited a political fury. President Bush called the appeals court decision "ridiculous." Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., described it as "nuts."

The House of Representatives quickly approved, in a 400-7 vote, a resolution urging the Supreme Court to reverse the decision because it was "clearly inconsistent" with the views of the framers of the Constitution. The Senate voted 99-0 for a resolution supporting the current version of the pledge.

I have to wonder how exactly such a majority of elected officials in America today can state that a secular pledge would be "clearly inconsistent" with the views of the framers of the Constitution. The framers were the very people who established the separation of Church and State, and not only that, but led the Western world by being the first to do so. The separation of Church and State was central to the framing of the Constitution in fact, a document that is purely secular. The founders chose a secular national motto and they wrote frequently about the need for separation of Church and State - as Thomas Jefferson put it: a "wall of separation;" as James Madison put it: a "perfect separation."

The founders had every opportunity to create religious mottos, creeds, and pledges, but they didn't do it.  The issue of separation of Church and State is clearly an important one, and one that deserves national debate, but it deserves honest debate with both sides being fairly heard. When an issue is this important we can't afford to simply let rhetoric and ignorance dominate the discussion. The separation of Church and State was central to the founding of the United States of America, more than anything else that was the revolutionary action of the founders that put America at the forefront of the Enlightenment Era and made America a beacon of liberty.

It also needs to be clear to everyone that in trying to preserve secularism in government, or in cases such as the Pledge of Allegiance case, when trying to restore secularism to government, that the secularists are really the ones on the side of tradition. Many who support the use of religious references and religious programs in government claim that the use of religion in government is a matter of American tradition, but in fact it is not. Virtually all of the major references to religion in the federal government have come within the past 50 years. These references do not represent long held American traditions, in fact it can be argued that the mixing of State and religion that has taken place in America over the past 50 years is exactly what the founding fathers warned against. 

     Besides the danger of a direct mixture of religion and civil government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations.
     The establishment of the chaplainship in Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights as well as of Constitutional principles.
     The danger of silent accumulations and encroachments by ecclesiastical bodies has not sufficiently engaged attention in the U.S.
- James Madison, being outvoted in the bill to establish the office of Congressional Chaplain

Indeed, the accumulations and encroachments by ecclesiastical bodies have been silently engaged in for some time now, centuries, but the encroachment has been consistent and today it has grown to a level where it is no longer silent.

The separation of Church and State is not meant to hinder religion, or to deny the role of religion in society or in our history. Many of the founders were Christians, even James Madison was a Christian, but what they established was a government that was non-religious - a secular government. That does not mean that they rejected religion; their purpose was to establish a government whose sole function was to administer earthy matters, while matters of religion were left purely to ecclesiastical institutions. The founders, by and large, were very much supportive of the role of religion in society, but they separated the ideas of society and government, leaving religion to play a role in society, not government.

If we are going to have national debate on this issue, please, can we at least do it honestly?

See Also:

The Ten Commandments, American History and American Law

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